COMMENT: Dealing with denial —Saleem H Ali
Conspiracy theories appear to be so prevalent among Muslims that Al Jazeera’s website has even set up a separate category to cater to them! This collective neurosis is prevalent among even the moderate Muslims who are otherwise responsible citizens and functional members of modern society
On September 1, Al Jazeera broadcast footage of one of the suicide bombers involved in the London attacks admitting his actions and providing a distorted rationale. Two weeks later, Aiman Al Zawahiri could also be seen in a similar video accepting responsibility and congratulating the bombers. Yet, despite numerous such videos from various Al Qaeda outfits acknowledging their involvement in terror attacks, there is a persistent denial of these linkages in Islamic countries.
As a practising Muslim, I am often alarmed and amused by my brethren succumbing to fanciful accounts of Western designs against Islam which explain attacks like 9/11 and 7/7 and even the Asian tsunami! In a recent visit to Islamabad, I was disturbed to find that conversations at sparkling tea parties among the educated elite of Islamabad were fertile ground for conspiracy cultivation.
Conspiracy theories appear to be so prevalent among Muslims that Al Jazeera’s website has even set up a separate category to cater to them! This collective neurosis is prevalent among even the moderate Muslims who are otherwise responsible citizens and functional members of modern society. For example, a Gallup poll a year after the September 11 attacks revealed that 61 per cent of nearly 10,000 Muslims in nine Islamic countries said they did not believe Arabs were responsible for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. Soon thereafter, 48 percent of Pakistanis polled reported that they thought that American Jews were responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Pseudo-intellectualism is rife among Pakistan’s elite with selective reading of long-defunct specious monographs such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This conspiratorial manuscript was proven to be a fabrication to incite hatred towards Jews, almost five decades ago, yet it can still be found in many Islamic bookstores. A frightening sign as Pakistan commendably tries to establish ties with Israel after acknowledging the need for a Palestinian state.
Of course, conspiracy accounts have always been a feature of human societies. From the lunar landing to the X-Files, we humans like to believe alternative accounts and revel in suspicion. The conspiratorial mindset is also one of the most insidious legacies of the Cold War — when many conspiracy theorists were actually proven correct.
Pervasive secrecy in those dark days incubated these conspiracy theories, but now increased transparency and media scrutiny has made governments more aware of the risk of conspiratorial strategies. In conflict situations, nevertheless, such theories are common — most Serbs, for example, are still in denial about the Srebrenica massacre and the Japanese still obfuscate their atrocities in Korea and China.
However, denial in the Muslim world is far more consequential because it can very easily translate into hatred and violence through misinterpretation of theological tenets. The denial in the Muslim world emanates from three key sources:
pre-existing distrust of the West;
the ease with which misinformation is accepted by public media sources in Muslim countries,
a reluctance on the part of Western authorities to confront the conspiracy theories.
All three aspects of this syndrome must be addressed. In my research on madrassas in Pakistan, the issue of civilian casualties during combat came across as the most common cause for distrusting America and for anger towards US policy. The reluctance of the US to directly tackle this issue or keep count of actual civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to the most irate conspiracy accounts.
Furthermore, there is reflexive disdain in US policy circles when links are made between regional conflicts in the Middle East, Kashmir or Chechnya and Muslim anger. Immediately, the prospect is raised that the problem lies with ‘our way of life’. While indeed, some fringe elements might be averse to modern lifestyles, the vast majority of Muslims have no problems with Western ways and have embraced them for decades. The US government also appears to be in denial about linkages between regional conflicts and Muslim anger, which in turn fuels Muslim denial about extremism.
Understandably, the US leadership does not want to be perceived as condoning or rationalising terrorism. However, since we so often use the metaphor of ‘cancer’ to describe terrorism, let us also try to extend the metaphor in treating the disease.
Symptomatic treatment through targeted military operations is indeed necessary (analogous perhaps to chemotherapy), but we must also look at ‘environmental’ agents that trigger the ailment. Hence, a symptomatic as well as a systemic response is in order — a lesson the US government’s public diplomacy operation, led by Karen Hughes, should consider.
Denial of extremism among Muslims is a serious challenge that must be confronted both internally and externally. Muslim organisations must be more scrupulous before publishing unsubstantiated accounts and Internet rumours. Deconstructing erroneous conspiracy theories is essential.
The silver lining to this denial syndrome is that it reflects a general repugnance for terrorist acts among the Muslim population — they consider such acts abhorrent and hence wish to believe that someone else must be responsible.
Yet, this reluctance to accept responsibility is now becoming a challenge for even those Muslim leaders who are willing to occasionally accept responsibility. Many are being labelled “sell-outs” and splinter groups are forming within numerous Muslim organisations in Europe after the July bombings. If we are to have acceptable reforms, a joint effort by Muslim organisations and governments is essential to combat the onslaught of misinformation that is paralysing our societies.
Saleem H Ali teaches environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and at Brown University in the United States